Harold Camping, Radio Entrepreneur Who Predicted World’s End, Dies at 92

Harold Camping, a Christian radio entrepreneur and biblical soothsayer who stirred consternation, ecstasy, complaints to the Federal Communications Commission and widespread ridicule by repeatedly prophesying the end of the world — twice in 2011 — died on Sunday at his home in Alameda, Calif. He was 92.

The cause was complications from a fall, the Family Radio network said in a statement Monday night.

To a global following probably in the millions, Mr. Camping was the personification of the Family Radio network, broadcasting a nondenominational Christian ministry from Oakland, Calif., over scores of stations in the United States and 30 other countries. For 50 years he was the charismatic host of the network’s “Open Forum,” a 90-minute weekday call-in program of inspirational commentary, discussions and advice.

He was also a lifelong student of the Bible whose books rely on a vast assemblage of numbers, and with his affinity for numerology he became preoccupied with what he regarded as the greatest calculation of them all: the mystery of what the Scriptures might reveal as the date of the apocalypse.

After the failure of his last prediction — he said the world would end on May 21, 2011, and, when that didn’t happen, amended the date to Oct. 21 — Mr. Camping conceded that he had been wrong about the timing and had no evidence that the world would end soon. He offered an apology for his erroneous statements, which he called “sinful,” and hinted that his days of apocalyptic warnings were over.

Critics called him a con man, a lunatic, a heretic and worse. But to his believers he was a throwback to the biblical prophets, spreading the word of Christ’s second coming, of a Judgment Day and a rapture, when the faithful would ascend into heaven and nonbelievers would be destroyed in a five-month worldwide cataclysm of earthquakes, fires and floods.

He was, in any case, a determined messenger. Starting in the 1970s, he predicted the world’s demise many times, drawing scant attention. His first widely noted doomsday was on May 21, 1988. He later published “1994?” — a 500-page book setting a range of dates that September. Despite the derision of mainstream Christian groups and scathing secular critics, Mr. Camping, having conceded errors in his earlier calculations, decided to try again in late 2008.

The end, he said, would come on May 21, 2011. The date was based on a complex formula involving the biblical flood survived by Noah in what Mr. Camping said was 4,990 B.C., a 7,000-year clock that began ticking from that moment, and the subtraction of one year because of a difference in the Old Testament and New Testament calendars.

Mr. Camping, a thin man with a craggy face and a resonant baritone radio voice, relentlessly promoted the date and its fateful consequences for more than two years on his listener-supported network, on 5,000 billboards and in countless books and pamphlets translated into 75 languages. To pay for it all, he raised tens of millions of dollars from listeners.

As the day closed in, there was an avalanche of publicity: newspaper and magazine articles, television forums and nonstop chatter on the Internet. Opinions ran from portentous credulity to merry mockery, with lots of clownish commentary and anguished hand-wringing. Mr. Camping estimated that seven billion would die, and followers spoke of settling their affairs and spending their final days with loved ones.

No one knows how many people rushed into marriages, scrambled to repent, ran up credit-card debts, threw last parties, quit their jobs or gave away their possessions. But the reaction was widespread and in some cases tragic, especially among people who feared being left behind to face an agonizing end.

With three days to go, a mother in Palmdale, Calif., stabbed her daughters, 11 and 14 years old, and cut her own throat with a box cutter, the police said, to avoid the calamity. All survived. A man in Taiwan, fearing that recent earthquakes and tsunamis signaled imminent doom, leapt to his death from a building. And in Antioch, Calif., a man who could not swim tried to reach God across a lake and drowned, the police said.

When nothing much happened on May 21, legions of crestfallen believers professed astonishment and disappointment. Many called Family Radio to denounce Mr. Camping as a false prophet. His Oakland station was vandalized, and there were threats against him, his family and station personnel.

Mr. Camping said he was “flabbergasted” that his predictions had not materialized. After a few days in seclusion to figure out what had gone wrong, he announced new conclusions — basically that God had quietly completed Judgment Day on May 21 and closed the books on heaven — and said he had recalibrated the end-of-times date for five months later, on Oct. 21. The new prediction was delivered in low key, without billboards or pamphlets. Mr. Camping said there was no need because the process of salvation was over.

The F.C.C. received complaints from around the nation demanding revocation of Family Radio’s broadcast licenses for having created a panic and deceived listeners into donating millions to perpetuate a falsehood. The F.C.C. rarely intervenes in religious disputes and was unlikely to act.

Weeks after the May 21 fiasco, Mr. Camping suffered a mild stroke and suspended his program. He returned in September, but spoke no more of earthquakes and fiery doom. He told listeners: “I really am beginning to think as I restudied these matters that there’s going to be no big display of any kind. The end is going to come very, very quietly.”

And nothing momentous happened on Oct. 21.

Five months later, in a letter to followers on his ministry’s website in March 2012, Mr. Camping not only apologized for getting it wrong, but acknowledged that he had “no new evidence pointing to another date for the end of the world” and “no interest in even considering another date.” But he found a silver lining in the confusion, noting that his “incorrect and sinful statement allowed God to get the attention of a great many people who otherwise would not have paid attention.”

Harold Egbert Camping was born in Boulder, Colo., on July 19, 1921, one of five brothers raised in Southern California by Dutch immigrants steeped in the Protestant doctrines of the Christian Reformed Church. He earned a degree in civil engineering from the University of California, Berkeley, in 1942.

In 1943, he and Shirley Vander Schuur were married. They had six children and many grandchildren.

In 1946 he founded a construction company that prospered, and by 35 he was a millionaire. In the 1950s he turned increasingly to Bible study, often devoting eight hours a day to the Scriptures.

He and two other men founded Family Stations Inc. in 1958 and, a year later, began broadcasting fundamentalist Christian programming on a San Francisco station. It was a rapid success. He later sold his construction company, became the expanding network’s unsalaried president and general manager, and in 1961 began hosting “Open Forum.” He also wrote some 30 books and pamphlets.

The network grew to at least 140 radio stations in America, Europe, Asia and Africa, two television outlets and a website. A 2009 financial disclosure published by the nonprofit news organization The Bay Citizen showed that the network had a budget of $36.7 million, $18.3 million in listener contributions, $34 million in investments, $56 million in assets and $29 million in liabilities.